Raising Lay Voices to Help a Scandal-Plagued Church Disturbed by Clergy Sex Abuse, a Handful of Catholics Take Part in a Global Network, Voice of the Faithful, Dedicated to Reform

By Nancy Haught
Oregonian [Portland OR]
March 21, 2004

Catholic clergy sex abuse challenges not just bishops and priests to be more open and vigilant, but also regular folks who believe that they are, at least partly, to blame.

No one is sure how many Roman Catholics have left the church or curtailed their financial giving. Some, surely, are hoping the worst is past. But a handful in Western Oregon have aligned themselves with a global network, Voice of the Faithful, whose members are dedicated to reclaiming and reforming their scandal-racked church.

The organization arose in the Archdiocese of Boston about two years ago, in the aftermath of news reports of widespread abuse there. For the past seven months, members have been quietly meeting in Portland, too, united by their feelings of responsibility.

"It happened on my watch," says Joan O'Neill, a retired Portland attorney, a former Sister of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary and a member of St. Andrew Parish in Northeast Portland.

While she worked and prayed in the church, all too often silently, she says now, the abuse took place. "I feel responsible."

But, like many others, she is not willing to leave the church that has sustained her for decades.

"The church is more than the institution, more than the hierarchy, more than the clergy," she says. "It is the people of God." The work they do is important, she adds: "The sick are treated, the children educated, the poor fed and housed, the imprisoned visited, the elderly sustained, the adults spiritually nourished, and prayers are offered together. This goes on all over the world.

"Finally, I am just too stubborn. I am not going to turn my church over to sex abusers in the clergy and to enabling bishops," she says.

Her feelings are echoed by Gayle Bache, a friend from St. Andrew's. "I love being a Catholic," the Lake Oswego woman says. "I love the ritual . . . it has been a source of great strength in my life. This was -- is -- my home. . . . The people who committed this crime should leave the church -- not me. That's clearly where my heart is."

Oregon membership is small

The two women are co-founders of Voice of the Faithful/Western Oregon, an affiliate of the national group that claims 30,000 members in 40 U.S. states and 30 countries. In Oregon, membership is small. About 40 people are on the Western Oregon e-mail list, and anywhere from six to 30 members, representing up to a dozen different parishes, have attended monthly meetings since June.

So far, they have met quietly, waiting for people to find them. But now, in the wake of two studies last month on clergy sex abuse (the John Jay College study and one prepared by the National Review Board) and a letter from the Most Rev. John G. Vlazny, archbishop of Portland, that summarized the scope and cost of the problem in Western Oregon, they've decided to be more public about their presence. They hope that other Catholics will share their commitment to the church and their determination to educate themselves about how it is governed. They've had little contact with Vlazny, who declined to comment for this story because he said he doesn't know much about the group.

Most bishops have been cautious when it comes to dealing with Voice of the Faithful, according to Mary Ann Keyes, a national spokeswoman for the group. Some have banned affiliates from meeting on parish property, she says. A few others have gone so far as to meet with members. She thinks it will take time for bishops to learn that Voice of the Faithful members are not their enemies.

"We're not about tearing down the hierarchy," she says. "We're not about doing away with dogma and doctrine. We are about including more lay voices in some of the decision-making."

Three goals

Members identify themselves as prayerful people, united by three goals: the support of victims of clergy abuse, of priests with integrity and of what they call "structural change" that will assure that lay voices will be heard in the governance of the church.

In parish settings, Voice of the Faithful has raised money for victims groups, sponsored healing services where victims feel free to participate regardless of whether they remained Catholic, sponsored study groups for Vatican II documents, held dinners for and sponsored joint study with priests who are not guilty of abuse, encouraged some parish councils to take more active roles in ministry and encouraged elections where parish council members had only been appointed, Keyes says.

Since the national studies were released last month, Voice of the Faithful has been circulating petitions in national newspapers and on its Web site,, proposing that Pope John Paul II meet with an international delegation of victims and hold bishops responsible for transferring abusive clergy and that U.S. bishops disclose details of such transfers and cooperate in civil investigations of abuse and cover-ups.

In Oregon, Voice of the Faithful members are focusing on educating themselves, Bache and O'Neill say. They have heard three victims tell their stories, have been briefed on the steps the archdiocese is taking to prevent abuse and are learning about the roles of financial, parish and diocesan councils.

The more they have learned, the more difficult it is to stay silent, they say. "Hearing a story of abuse changes you," Bache says. "You are not the same. Hearing a story more than once keeps it fresh, solidifies your motives and ambitions. . . . It is not wallowing in pain."

O'Neill agrees. "The silence has been broken. I was a child in World War II, and the newsreels of the Holocaust are seared into my soul. I used to have dreams about freeing the Jews. Well, this is a little bit like our own holocaust."

Nancy Haught: 503-294-7625;


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.